all of my 2020 book recommendations

All year long, I’ve made a weekly book recommendation when kicking off the weekend open thread. These aren’t work-related books; they’re just books I like, mostly fiction. Sometimes they’re books that I’m in the middle of reading, and other times they’re just long-standing favorites.

Here’s the complete list of what I’ve recommended this year (maybe in time for holiday gift-shopping!). I’ve bolded my favorites of the favorites.

First, my favorite book of the year: The House in the Cerulean Sea, by TJ Klune. A caseworker in charge of magical children travels to an island to investigate an orphanage that’s home to six seemingly dangerous magical kids. It’s so good — very Harry Potter-esque, but possibly even better. I love it so much.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid. A legendary but reclusive actress agrees to write her biography, with a surprising condition.

Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of a mom and her baby-sitter and is all about how race and class and privilege mess us up. It’s really, really good.

The View From Penthouse B, by Elinor Lipman. Two sisters, one recently widowed and one recently bankrupted by Bernie Madoff, move in together and try to figure out what’s next … as complications arise in the form of a young boarder and a paroled ex. I keep seeing Elinor Lipman called a modern Jane Austen, and I don’t think that’s far off; she writes wonderful comedies of manners. This one is warm and cozy and funny.

All This Could Be Yours, by Jami Attendberg. A dysfunctional family’s patriarch is on his deathbed, and his daughter struggles with his legacy.

Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym. I find Barbara Pym cozy and funny, while my sister finds her depressing. I don’t know what that says about us. In any case, this is the story of Mildred Lathbury, who is leading a quiet, boring life when excitingly modern neighbors move in downstairs and things are thrown into disarray. You should read this while drinking a lot of tea.

Followers, by Megan Angelo. In 2016, two friends seek fame, and find it with unanticipated consequences. 35 years later, the government runs a strictly controlled, 24/7 reality show with stars who can’t leave. This is a dark, utterly engrossing story about technology, fame, and lack of privacy.

My Latest Grievance, by Elinor Lipman. I’m on an Elinor Lipman kick. This one is about a teenager raised on a college campus where her parents work, and what happens when her father’s glamorous first wife arrives on the scene.

Saint X, by Alexis Schaitkin. Claire is seven when her sister disappears. Two decades later, she encounters one of the men believed responsible — and begins a quest to understand what happened and what it cost everyone around her. This is so beautifully written it’s painful.

Something That May Shock and Discredit You, by Daniel Lavery of The Toast and Dear Prudence, whose writing is always a delight. This is the story of his transition, and it’s funny and smart and moving and goes in directions you don’t expect. Highly recommended.

My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell, about a lonely 15-year-old who becomes involved with her teacher and later struggles to understand the relationship as abuse. It’s disturbing and hauntingly written and kept me up reading until 5 am, which is a problem but also a strong endorsement.

Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles. In 1930s New York, a typist gets drawn into the city’s social elite. An enjoyable distraction.

Last Couple Standing, by Matthew Norman. When all their friends get divorced, a couple tries an ill-judged experiment.

The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel. This story of two siblings weaves all around, from dance clubs to a remote hotel in Canada to a Madoff-like scandal. There’s vulnerability and magical realism and meditations on money and beautiful writing. It’s very different from her earlier Station Eleven (do not read that right now), but it put me in a sort of trance and I liked it.

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s the story of a woman born in 1800 to a wealthy family, and I have no idea how to capture what it’s actually about so I’m going to quote from an NPR review to explain its breadth: “Gilbert covers how to smuggle plant clippings to foreign buyers; the vulgarities of professional sailors; Cicero; Captain Cook’s being hacked to death; varietals of vanilla pods; a sky-high waterspout; abolition and poverty; Euclidean gardening; sodomy and self-pleasuring; what the Dutch serve at tea-time; and what a rugby-like, women’s-only Tahitian sport can tell us about the animal kingdom. (To name just a few.)” Which still tells you nothing of what it’s actually about, but it’s good, and long.

Redhead by the Side of the Road, by Anne Tyler. A socially oblivious IT guy who holds himself at a bit of a remove finds his life increasingly complicated.

The Inn at Lake Devine, by Elinor Lipman. A Jewish teenager in the ’60s begins a decades-long fixation on a Vermont inn and the family that runs it (including an anti-Semitic mother and two intriguing sons).

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, by Janelle Brown. A mother and two daughters, all with secrets of their own, spend a summer grappling with family drama.

Pretty Things, by Janelle Brown. I’m now working my way through all her books. This one is about an influencer and a thief, their history together, and what happens when their paths cross again. It has revenge and dark plans and twists, and it will make you sympathize with people you don’t expect to sympathize with.

The Other Bennet Sister, by Janice Hadlow. The story of Mary Bennet, the plain, seemingly stick-in-the-mud sister from Pride and Prejudice. I usually don’t like retellings but I loved this one, and you will never look at any of the Bennet sisters the same way again. (In fact, even Mr. Collins becomes sympathetic here, which is quite an achievement.)

All Adults Here, by Emma Straub. This is a story about the messiness of families, as all Emma Straub’s novels are: a grandmother who rethinks her life when she sees an acquaintance get hit by a bus, a teenager granddaughter who comes to live with her after an upsetting incident at school, the friend she makes in her new town, and a web of family members all intertwined.

We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas. A long family saga (the best kind) about love, loss, and the American dream. Every character in here frustrated me at some point, but that made them more real.

The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild. A famous lost painting is found and spurs drama, mystery, romance, and dirty dealing.

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett. Twin sisters run away together from their small town founded by and for light-skinned black people. One returns later with her daughter, while the other builds a new life passing for white, cutting off ties to her family to keep her secret. It’s about race and identity and home, and I loved it.

Perfect Little World, by Kevin Wilson. An 18-year-old sleeps with her teacher, gets pregnant, and becomes part of a scientific project studying what happens when 10 families raise their children collectively. It turns out that planned utopias have as much dysfunction as anywhere else. (He also wrote the wonderful Nothing to See Here.)

Carrie Pilby, by Caren Lissner. A former child prodigy hits adulthood and struggles to connect with people. It’s quirky and charming.

Friends and Strangers, by J. Courtney Sullivan, the story of the relationship between a woman struggling in a new town and the college student she hires to babysit. It takes on money and class and parenthood, and both women are painted so vividly that you’ll miss them when you’re finished with it.

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith. A very amusing but penniless family lives in a crumbling castle in 1930s England, but everything changes when two rich American brothers become their new landlords. It’s delightfully written. How had I never read this before? I now love it with all my heart.

Family and Other Accidents, by Shari Goldhagen. It follows two brothers left on their own after their parents die, and their relationships with the women in their lives over decades. I loved it, although be warned there’s a jarring number of sex scenes that, to me, felt oddly discordant with the rest of the book.

America for Beginners, by Leah Franqui. A widow leaves India to tour America and find out what happened to her estranged son. I loved it.

The Comeback, by Ella Berman. A former teen star grapples with her relationship with the man who made her famous and controlled her for years.

Luster, by Raven Leilani. A woman struggling with her 20s falls into an affair with a married man in an open marriage but ends up connecting with his wife and daughter instead. This will make you so glad to be done with your 20s, if you are. (And if you’re not, my sincere condolences to you.)

Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley. A man rescues a young boy after the plane they’re on goes down, and when the boy turns out to be the only surviving member of a rich and powerful family, questions are raised about what really happened on board. This is not my usual fare, but it kept me totally engrossed.

One to Watch, by Kate Stayman-London. A friend recommended this and I was skeptical, but it’s very enjoyable: It’s about the first plus-sized contestant on a Bachelorette-like show, who is rightly cynical about the show but agrees to go on to help her brand, and what happens. It skewers some of the worst parts of reality TV and talks more honestly than you often see about weight.

Juliet, Naked, by Nick Hornby. A woman whose rather ridiculous boyfriend is obsessed with a reclusive musician secretly connects with said musician online and things ensue.

The Two-Family House, by Lynda Cohen Loigman. Two very different brothers, their wives, and children share a two-family house in the 1940s and 50s, and the sisters-in-law, once close, are driven apart by a secret.

With or Without You, by Caroline Leavitt. After awakening from a coma, a woman discovers that her life — and she herself — have changed.

Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption. This is a compilation of essays from the New York Time’s Modern Love column, and it is excellent for nights when you need something that will take you exactly 10 minutes to read before you fall asleep.

Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld. Away at boarding school, a teenager feels like an outsider. It’s about money and class and identity, and it feels real.

Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam. A family vacationing in a remote area and the owners of the house they’re staying in get trapped when a mysterious global disaster strikes. It starts as a vacation novel, but it decidedly is not one. I don’t normally enjoy dread, but this sucked me in.

The Expectations, by Alexander Tilney. A teenager and his roommate each struggle in different ways to navigate an exclusive prep school. There’s lots in here about class and privilege, and how weird adolescence is. In many ways, this is the cousin of Prep.

The Smart One, by Jennifer Close. A tale of two sisters who both find themselves living back at home, their lives not working out as they’d planned.

Billion Dollar Loser: The Epic Rise and Spectacular Fall of Adam Neumann and WeWork, by Reeves Wiedeman. OMG, y’all. If you like real-life stories of terrible management and the downfall of hubris, you will be so fascinated by this story of what happened at WeWork. (Think of all the start-up horror stories you’ve ever heard and then multiply them by 10; they’re in this book.) Along similar lines, if you haven’t yet read Bad Blood, about the massive fraud at Theranos, read that too.

Solutions and Other Problems, by Allie Brosh. After several years of silence, the author of Hyperbole and a Half (and the blog by the same name) is back! Her new book is full of illustrated stories about her childhood, her family, dogs, and the harder stuff she’s always so willingly tackled like loss and grief. It’s moving and funny and powerful, as her stuff always is.

Cobble Hill, by Cecily von Ziegesar. It’s about four families — including a former rock star, a school nurse, a renowned but struggling novelist, a performance artist, and their spouses — and how their lives intersect in unexpected ways. Not a lot happens but it’s fun.

Saints for All Occasions, by J. Courtney Sullivan. Another epic family saga, this one told from alternating points of view and about two sisters who leave Ireland for America. Estranged for years after arriving, one raises a large family while the other becomes a cloistered nun. It’s about family, secrets, and how decisions when you’re young can shape the course of your life in ways you never expect.

Mother Land, by Leah Franqui. An American newlywed in India tries to adjust to her mother-in-law moving in with her.

The Family Man, by Elinor Lipman. This is the fourth Elinor Lipman book I’ve recommended this year, because I love her — when you want something light and sparkling but still smartly written, she’s perfect. In this one, a lonely lawyer reconnects with his formerly estranged step-daughter, who has been hired by a PR firm to pose as the girlfriend of a famous actor. It’s funny and sweet and just the right amount of zany.

Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots. It’s about a woman who works very boring temp jobs … for super villains. There are a lot of details that will be familiar to anyone who thinks about work a lot (a villain who is way too interested in how people are feeling, coworker tensions, worries about health insurance …), all of which become very amusing in a “working for villains” context, and you will be deeply invested in some surprising characters by the end of it. One of my favorites of the year.

And if you’re looking for more, here are my lists of book recommendations from 2019 … from 2018 … from 2017 … from 2016 … and from 2015.

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{ 149 comments… read them below }

  1. Bostonian*

    Ooooooh I read Bad Blood recently and really liked it; I’ll have to check out Billion Dollar Loser. Thanks!

    1. JustaTech*

      My boss loaned me his copy of Bad Blood and told me he’d shouted at a it a lot (he knew some of the people who caught the worst of it personally). We work in a related industry so not only did we knew the technical stuff, we knew the utter nonsense that the business side could bring.

      I shouted at the book a lot, but it was I guess cathartic, to see this book and know that other people saw the amount of BS in the industry and who gets left holding the bag.
      Highly recommend!

  2. bubbleon*

    I’ve been talking about The Other Bennet Sister to everyone who would listen since you recommended it earlier this year! I convinced my book club to read it and at least 1 person is getting it as a Christmas present this year. I *wholeheartedly* agree with this recommendation :)

    1. Someone*

      But is is bad of me to NOT want to get a sympathetic view of Mr Collins? LOL

      I just really looooooooovvvveeeee to loath that guy.

    2. Mockingjay*

      I read this a couple of months ago and really, really liked it. Hadlow expanded peripheral characters in a way that paid homage to Austen while allowing their own traits to shine through in unexpected ways.

    3. AY*

      In a similar vein, I really enjoyed Longbourn from a few years ago. It’s about the servants in the Bennets’ house, and it had some of that Tracy Chevalier/Girl with the Pearl Earring eye for detail.

    4. Mieki60*

      OMG I loved, loved loved this book. I literally read it straight through. I thoroughly enjoyed the section about Longbourne and the Collins family. He was much more sympathetic, but it made sense, it didn’t seem contrived at all. And you get to place all of your loathing squarely on Mrs. Bennett, who deserves it in spades

  3. Web Crawler*

    I second The House in the Cerulean Sea! It was beautiful and sweet and so very queer, in the way that generalizes to a lot of marginalized groups, not just the LGBT community.

    1. OtterB*

      The other thing I noticed while reading The House in the Cerulean Sea is that the employment of the caseworker, before he goes to visit the children, made me think of AAM because of the office’s amusingly-presented but deep dysfunction. I was especially amused by his bafflement and concern, and his boss’s suspicion, when he is called to visit Extremely Upper Management.

      1. Evergreen*

        ha! imagine how Alison would respond to a letter from Linus asking about how to deal with the management system there

  4. fposte*

    For reading the Barbara Pym I was going to suggest sherry could work as an alcoholic alternative, and then I remembered last year I found it impossible to find sherry sold in my town, and the nice person at the fancy supermarket liquor section didn’t know what it was. I thought that was an interesting generational change.

      1. Respectfully, Pumat Sol*

        I drink sherry! And port. And I’m only 30 lol. I joke with my friends that I am in fact, a 70 year old British grandma. Good sherries can be challenging to find. I find I have to go to specialty wine stores.

        1. Charlotte Lucas*

          I do! My mother got me in the habit. I always have a bottle on hand for recipes, too. French onion soup wouldn’t be the same without it.

          Came here to say if you like Barbara Pym, you should try E. M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady series. I’ve loved them since high school.

      2. pancakes*

        I do. I love dry sherry and it’s so good with food. My favorite local liquor store has a great selection and ships across the US, astorwines dot com, for those of you who can’t find it locally.

      3. A Library Person*

        When my book club met in person (up to March 2020), we always had bottles of dry and sweet sherry to share. It’s the only time I (a mid-millennial) have ever encountered it, but I find that I quite like it. FWIW, however, for the purposes of generational shifts, most of the regular attendees are at least a decade or two older than I am.

  5. Person from the Resume*

    The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett and Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid are my top non-genre reads of 2020.

  6. ScienceLady*

    Thank you for compiling these, Alison! What a great list.

    I am a huge Jasper Fforde fan, but have read all of his (including his delightful YA novels). Do any other Fforde Ffans have recommendations for similar authors?

    1. Libervermis*

      The Chronicles of St. Mary’s series is also time-travel and fun, reminded me a lot of Fforde, though a bit darker. The first one is called “Just One Damned Thing After Another”

      1. Forensic13*

        Oh man I wanted to like One Damn Thing and just couldn’t. There was so much female-oriented violence that felt like it was there to shock more than to serve the plot or characters.

        1. ScienceLady*

          Oh, that is good to know, Forensic13. I don’t have much of a stomach for violence so I will proceed with caution!

  7. Boof*

    Bone shard daughter – one of the best fantasy books I’ve come across in a while, nominated (won?) a lot of awards for new fiction. Bonus, I do know the author, she is amazing and this is her first major book deal after years of writing. And it’s so well deserved, can’t wait for the next book! (it’s part of a trilogy I think)

  8. Lizy*

    I have steadfastly refused to read anything that’s recommended as being “like Harry Potter” because YOU CAN’T BE LIKE HARRY POTTER NOTHING IS BETTER.

    You are, quite literally, one of 2 people in the entire world from whom I would take a “like Harry Potter” recommendation. The other person? I sent this list to her. :)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I actually think it might be better. It reaches into your heart in a different way. (I don’t know how else to say it — people who have read it may know what I mean.) I’ll be interested to know what you think.

    2. Web Crawler*

      If it helps, it’s not a book that’s attempting to replace Harry Potter. It’s a book that’s exploring a different culture with magical beings and how they’re treated.

      I say this as somebody else who doesn’t read things described as like Harry Potter. Don’t kill me, but I’m not a fan.

      1. MusicWithRocksIn*

        Mairelon the Magician series is kinda that for me. It’s kinda a Pride and prejudice era world with magic – which I have always loved because it’s a world where magic isn’t hidden but just kind of accepted, which is rare in the ‘some people have magic’ books.

        1. Kes*

          Love Mairelon the Magician! (wouldn’t describe it as like Harry Potter though, beyond that they’re both fantasy YA)

    3. lazy intellectual*

      Yep – it can be good in it’s own right but it’s not Harry Potter. It’s also not a good advertisement.

  9. Fiona the Baby Hippo*

    I read I Capture The Castle this year too! I saw the movie YEARS ago when it came out, but felt inspired to revisit it this year- what made you pick it up?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I have no idea! I’ve idly scrolled past it on “books you may like” lists for years and then for some reason this year started it — and was entranced from the first page on.

      1. 30 Years in the Biz*

        I Capture the Castle was one of my favorite books growing up. Dodie Smith also wrote “The 101 Dalmatians”. I had read that book first (much better than the Disney cartoon, although it’s great in it’s own way) and went looking for other books by the author. Strangely, my other favorite books at around 12 years old were The Case of the Crimson Kiss by Earle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie books. My mom had a compendium of mysteries that I worked my way through. I really appreciate your recommendations Alison; I’ve read many of them. Thank you!

        1. allathian*

          Oddly enough, I also became a fan of Agatha Christie when I was around 12 years old. We lived in the UK at the time and I got my first Christie book, Murder on the Orient Express, as a Christmas present from one of my parents’ coworkers (they were research scientist, my dad has a PhD and my mom has a Master’s and she worked as his assistant for most of her early career when she returned to the workforce after 10 years as a homemaker).

    2. em*

      It’s been on my to-read list forever and this was the year I finally picked it up, too! So sweet and funny.

      1. BubbleTea*

        It’s probably my favourite book, and the film is close enough to the book that it wasn’t a disappointment, which is rare. Beautifully written and clever.

  10. Crivens!*

    Some of my favorites that I read this year:

    Every Bone a Prayer by Ashley Blooms – A magical realism story about a 10 year old who speaks to nature. TW for physical and sexual abuse in this one.

    Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore – The violent rape of a young teen tears a small oil town apart. This is told from the perspective of several women in town.

    Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982 – The facts of gender inequality in Korea are told through the life history of one woman.

    The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman – A non-fiction book about the many ways birds are incredibly smart and adaptable.

    How to Make Friends with the Dark by Kathleen Glasgow – A teen girl recovers from the death of her mother in and out of foster care.

    Is Rape a Crime? A Memoir, an Investigation, and a Manifesto by Michelle Bowdler

    Foe by Iain Reid and I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid – Both of these are deeply surreal and hard to describe.

    Severance by Ling Ma – The world has ended. How do a bunch of business people types deal with it?

    Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall: Necessary lessons on what intersectionality actually means and how white feminism has failed at it.

  11. Lucy*

    These all sound amazing! I’m still struggling with finding the time to read at all; this year I’ve read the most “for fun” books than I’ve read in 6 years, and it was 4 books. I’m definitely checking out The House in the Cerulean Sea though, I need a Harry Potter-esque book that is not written by a transphobe.

    1. Lyudie*

      If a magic school setting is something you dig, may I suggest Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey. Murder mystery + magic. Loved it.

    2. Stabbity Tuesday*

      Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series might be your HP replacement! Set at a boarding school for kids who returned from portal fantasy worlds, it’s got a lot of diversity both of identity and thought/worldview among the characters. Also second Magic for Liars, it’s a really good story, but more adult than kids or YA

    3. 321zeggy*

      I recently discovered the Nevermoor series by Jessica Townsend, and it gave me strong Harry Potter vibes and has since become one of my favorites. The author has also tweeted in support of trans folk, and there’s a some LGBT+ rep in the third book!

    4. JustaTech*

      If you’re looking for a dark take on “Magic boarding school” I’d recommend “Deadly Education” by Naomi Novik. I’ve enjoyed most of her books, and found some of her non-Napoleonic Wars With Dragons to be utterly engrossing.
      Deadly Education has a sequel, but I don’t know if it’s out yet.

  12. Respectfully, Pumat Sol*

    If you like House on the Cerulean Sea, you might like Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas. They’re about a school for the kids who went to other worlds (like Alice in Wonderland) who come back to our world but want to go back. They’re wonderfully written, very inclusive and the books alternate between “at school” adventures and the kids origin stories.

    1. Lyudie*

      I love this series so much! And if you haven’t heard, they just announced there will be a few more <3

  13. ZombieDC*

    I bought The House in the Cerulean Sea based on your recommendation (I actually buy lots of books based on your recommendations!) and I don’t know if I could love a book more this year – I will not stop talking about how awesome it is. So what I am saying, is that I’ll be stalking this thread.

    1. Ali G*

      I’ve already bookmarked it! I haven’t had time to really research books lately and so have just been living off the KindleFirst reads or what Amazon recommends for me. It’s nice to have the hard work done – thanks Alison!

  14. Libervermis*

    I keep running up against the hold limit at my library because of your recommendations!

    Just finished The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab and absolutely loved it.

    1. CTT*

      My friend is getting me that for Christmas, and I actually had to write down a note for my fridge reminding me not to buy it because I’ve been wanting to read it!

    2. Paris Geller*

      The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is my favorite book I’ve read this year (so far I suppose. . . still a bit of time for a late riser.)

  15. ThatGirl*

    Thank you as always for your recommendations, Alison. I’ve read a number of these and often look to your recs when I need something new to read.

    My favorite book of the year, however, was the newest Erin Morgenstern book – The Starless Sea. If you liked The Night Circus you should definitely read Starless Sea. If you like books that feel kind of magical without really being fantasy, that will engross you in dreamlike worlds, I highly recommend both of them. Beyond that, The Starless Sea is kind of about a love of reading and books, too.

    1. Another Book Lover*

      I finished The Starless Sea and TURNED I BACK TO THE FRONT AND STARTED IT AGAIN. I can’t even tell you how much I loved it, except that you, ThatGirl, understand! (Any recommendations you’ve got for me …?)

      1. ThatGirl*

        I loved it so much!!
        If you haven’t read Night Circus, start there.
        Exhalation, Ted Chiang (short stories)
        After the Flood, Kassandra Montag
        The Dreamers, Karen Walker Thompson
        Her Body and Other Parties (short stories), Carmen Maria Machado

  16. MissBliss*

    I am 46 minutes and 45 seconds away from being done with the Such A Fun Age audiobook and it is SO GOOD. Nerve inducing, but fantastic.

    My favorite book this year would have to be The Darwin Affair by Tim Mason, a novel set in Victorian England that includes crime, many historical characters, and twinges that feel like magic. It, incredibly, also mentioned the name of one of my husband’s ancestors, which is how I discovered that he was present at the 1860 Oxford debate between Thomas Henry Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce. As a Darwin nerd and genealogist, this was a fabulous and incredibly unexpected thing to discover in a novel I started listening to on a whim. HIGHLY recommend.

  17. not owen wilson*

    I reread Station Eleven in July. Could not tell you why I thought that was a good idea. Fantastic book but uh… maybe give it a year? Maybe two? Definitely hit a little too close to home right now!!

    1. ThatGirl*

      I’d recommended it to my husband for awhile. He was finally going to read it, read the first chapter in early March and said uhhh, no, not right now.

  18. Elsie*

    If you liked Prep, you would really like American Wife and Eligible. For different reasons, but I think they are Curtis Sittenfeld’s best.

  19. Ask a Manager* Post author

    For the House in the Cerulean Sea lovers:

    So, last night I finished Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots (on the recommendation of Jennifer at Captain Awkward) and I loved it. I’m going to recommend it on some future weekend open thread, but it’s about a woman who works very boring temp jobs … for super villains. There are a lot of details that will be familiar to anyone who thinks about work a lot (a villain who is way too interested in how people are feeling, coworker tensions, worries about health insurance …), all of which become very amusing in a “working for villains” context, but there is also something that really reminded me of the House in the Cerulean Sea. I can’t put my finger on what it is — they are VERY different stories, but they share some small piece of DNA, especially toward the end of Hench.

    1. Sarah*

      I can never remember where I hear of books by the time my library holds arrive, so I was glad to see YOU were the one who recommended it. It was exactly what I want to be reading in the middle of a pandemic.

      I immediately place a hold on this book which sounds AMAZING.

      As for similarities, I wonder if it’s the mix of what seems boring and dreary with the unexpected and delightful. It’s like heavy duty magic realism. (Have you read any Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Different but related).

    2. Lore*

      I think maybe that they’re both about finding strength and people often seen as cogs in the system coming into their own?

    3. BookBro*

      This is so wild! I would name these two specific books as my favorite books of the year. I’m not sure HOW they’re connected but obviously there’s something similar in their vibe despite being drastically different stories.

      I have also loved and championed The Signature of All Things for years! It’s so fun to see we agree on books when I read this blog specifically in reference to my job in the book industry.

  20. Michelle Myers*

    Your taste in books seems similar to mine, so allow me to recommend The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab, which I just this second finished. Pretty sure it’s my favorite of the year and is, imho, pretty perfect.

  21. NotAnotherManager!*

    Thank you for compiling these! One of my quarantine goals has been to get back into pleasure reading, and these lists are so helpful because choosing the book is half the battle (getting it off the library hold queue is the second). I read “Such a Fun Age” based on the recommendation and really enjoyed it. I’ve also been on a Karin Slaughter, Claire Messaud, Carl Hiaasen (YA and adult), and Karen McManus (YA) tear this year.

  22. dowsabel*

    Judging by your reaction to both Excellent Women and I Capture the Castle, you might also enjoy the Backlisted podcast. They are big fans of both of them.

    My book of the year is non-fiction, despite spending most of 2020 devouring reissued Golden Age detective stories from the wonderful Dean Street Press. Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake is about fungi and is one of those books that make you see the world differently. It’s also beautifully written and the audiobook, read by the author, is mesmerising. You have to love an author who grows mushrooms on and makes beer out of copies of his book. That’s commitment!

  23. A Library Person*

    Thanks, Alison, for your wonderful capsule reviews/recommendations! I follow a lot of book blogs and have seen most of these recommended before, but you have a special touch in capturing what they’re about and making them seem particularly alluring. My TBR has just expanded significantly.

  24. LDF*

    My little book club read The House in the Cerulean Sea on your suggestion and we all enjoyed it! It was just very pleasant and nice in a way that we all realy needed.

  25. Mona Lisa*

    Prep is one of my favorite books of all time! Reading it as a late teen just out of high school, it resonated so strongly with me. I enjoy coming back to it years later to see how my perspective changes with time.

    I loved Such a Fun Age; it stuck with me for weeks and made me examine how I as a white person interact with POC and could be a better ally.

    This year I challenged myself to broaden my author base and read books from minority groups. Out of 32 books this year, only one was by a white man (a reread during a pre-Covid beach vacation). My favorites were The Broken Earth trilogy by NK Jemisin, Homegoing, and several of Carmen Maria Machado’s books.

  26. archangelsgirl*

    I read My Dark Vanessa on your recommendation. It was such a visual into the mind of both the perpetrator and the victim. I could not put it down, and it haunted me for… well, still. It just opened up a whole level of understanding for me. Can’t recommend enough. Amazing! Thank you.

  27. lazy intellectual*

    I spent a lot of lockdown comfort re-reading old favorites, but I did enjoy “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World” by Anand Girdharadas

  28. Saraaaaaah*

    Thank you so much! I haven’t had too much fiction reading time this year, but I am Very Excited to check some of these out during my upcoming vacation time.

  29. Uhdrea*

    I picked up the 7 Husbands of Evelyn Huge based on your recommendation and I’ve since turned around and recommended it to everyone else I can think of. It’s such a captivating story.

  30. Gloucesterina*

    Oh wow, I don’t normally put books into a bucket labelled “Extraordinary, Jaw-Dropping Risk-Taking that Somehow Actually Pays Off” but Gilbert’s Signature of All Things makes and fills that bucket in my view.

  31. Funny Cide*

    Partner recently bought House in the Cerulean Sea for me without knowing of your recommendation of it – I’m even more excited to pick it up now that I know it’s officially your favorite of the year!

  32. CupcakeCounter*

    A couple of the books on this list look like great options for my sister – I know buying through the links support Alison but does anyone know of independent online bookstores I can browse as well?

    1. The Vulture*

      I’m not sure how works but you can find a specific bookstore as well – I’ll go ahead and recommend Uncle Bobbie’s in Philadelphia and Elizabeth’s in Akron, both local, black-owned bookstores.

      1. CupcakeCounter*

        Thanks!! Just ordered 2 books from Elizabeth’s. As much as I’m an Amazon addict, I’ve been trying to keep my Christmas $$ going to smaller businesses. My husband is weirded out by the stack of boxes without smiles on them sitting in the entryway.

  33. TheseOldWings*

    I read “The Glass Hotel” a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it. When I was telling people about it, I also mentioned she wrote an excellent book called “Station Eleven” but would NOT recommend reading it right now, haha.

    1. Cher Horowitz*

      I am foolhardy and decided to read Station Eleven a few months ago and you know it was almost reassuring to read like “life is terrible right now for so many people and things are supremely mishandled but we still have planes and electricity and gas stations. So yay!?!?!?”

  34. Whiskey on the rocks*

    Yeah, definitely do not read Station Eleven right now. It had been on my hold list for months, since you had recommended it, and I didn’t even remember what it was about when I started it. It was excellent, but lawdy I did not need to read that this year. I did get to read Last Night in Montreal by the same author through your recommendations though.

    Another well-written, enjoyable, don’t think too hard book i read recently is Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson.

    Library hold list updated! Thank you!

  35. BJS*

    I did so little reading this year – COVID + unemployment + a lot of anxiety meant more Netflix/Hulu/doomscrolling. I have so many 2020 releases on my shelves waiting to be read; I’m worried for 2021 because most anticipated lists are starting to pop up and there are already so many books I want to read.

  36. MusicWithRocksIn*

    Man. Times like these I really really love being able to click ‘Send a sample to MusicWithRocksIn’s Paperwhite’ so that a nice sample of these will be waiting for me next time I want to read a book – and not have to note them down somewhere then loose the paper. Sometimes the future is nice.

    I do already have my hardback of Solutions and Other Problems though (had it on pre-0rder) and it is fantastic. Plus you can check out her website to see if her comics are your style. I particularly love ‘A better Pain Scale’ and ‘Menace’.

    1. JustaTech*

      I love that my library system’s website has a thing called your “For Later” shelf, where you can put all the books you want to read eventually but not right now. Then it helpfully tells you which of your “For Later” books are available for checkout right now.

  37. A Red Panda*

    So happy to see someone else likes Excellent Women and Barbara Pym! I chose EW for my book club awhile back and, sadly, I found it delightful and everyone else hated it.

  38. voluptuousfire*

    I definitely want to read that Billion Dollar book. I worked at WeWork and met Adam Neumann briefly and while he’s definitely a charming, attractive man, the guy is soooooooo full of crap. It oozes off him, the sleaziness. He has that smarmy charm 80’s era Trump had. Ugh.

    I also read my Dark Vanessa and that was so good. I happened to pick up a book called Tampa by Alyssa Nutting, not quite realizing the topic until after I read it. The main character is a young, attractive female junior high school and details the pursuit of her male students. It’s the flip side of Jacob Straid. It’s is a really transgressive book, so trigger warning on that!so

  39. Someone On-Line*

    If you have a sudden interest in plagues, but like, funny, try Get Well Soon by Jennifer Wright. It has some good lessons for our current situation but it’s also written in such a way that it will make you laugh instead of have a panic attack.

    If you like magical realism, highly recommend The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. It’s set in the turn of the last century, features a creepy guardian in an old mansion, secrets, and doors to other worlds.

    1. Someone On-Line*

      Oh, and I just finished Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat by Hal Herzog about our relationships with animals. It’s not preachy or moralistic. It’s more someone who’s really curious about the way we move through the world and why we think the way we do.

  40. Eric*

    My first comment ever and it’s to second your recommendation of “The House on the Cerulean Sea.” It’s everything you said and more — heartwarming, heartbreaking at times, and full of endearing, funny, fantastic characters.

    1. Eric*

      Er, “The House in the Cerulean Sea.” You’d think for my also favorite book of the year I’d get the name right….

  41. Princess Grogu*

    I am baffled by the love for The House in the Cerulean Sea… and I am a queer, YA-fantasy lover who volunteers with foster kids! At the risk of making enemies here, I found it to be a bit like eating marshmallow fluff on Wonderbread: mediocre, bland, overly sweet but devoid of nutritional value. I felt similarly about The Ten Thousand Doors of January (didn’t finish it) and The Night Circus (yuck!).

    My favorites for queer(ish) fantasy are:
    Sorcerer Royal series by Zen Cho
    Greta Van Helsing series by Vivian Shaw
    Invisible Library series by Genevieve Cogman
    Simon Snow series by Rainbow Rowell

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I actually think it might be because you’re a big fantasy reader. In general, I don’t like fantasy at all, but I loved both the House in the Cerulean Sea and the Night Circus. I think they’re both fantasy for people who don’t necessarily like fantasy (which means they might not fulfill you in the same way).

      1. Princess Grogu*

        That makes sense! Thanks for being gracious about my yucking your yum. Outside of fantasy, I think our tastes are more similar. I enjoyed both The Vanishing Half and My Dark Vanessa, and often read your recommendations and think “that sounds interesting” or it’s something I’ve already read and liked.

      2. Princess Grogu*

        P.S. One of the reasons I disliked The Night Circus so much was because it was VERY heavy on description/world-building. I know a lot of people LOVE that and it’s very common in fantasy, but those are the books that I often struggle with or don’t bother to finish.

        P.P.S I forgot to mention one of my favorite all-time series, The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Often described as Harry Potter for grown-ups, it’s far better written than JK Rowling could ever hope to achieve.

    2. JustaTech*

      Seconding the Great Van Helsing series! Those are great and fun and I did not expect any of the places where the third book went *at all*.

  42. periwinkle*

    I’m so far behind on my leisure reading… and just recently got around to buying one of the 2017 picks, “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.” After this thoroughly crap year, this book has been a little delightful gem. Highly recommended if you need to reset your mood right around now.

    1. Funny Cide*

      I’m afraid I don’t know where it might be available for streaming/rental, because I own the DVD, but I’m a pretty big fan of the movie version as well! It’s also really sweet.

  43. Detective Amy Santiago*

    I listened to the audio book of Before the Fall and absolutely loved it. Added a few of these recs to my various wishlists.

  44. Mieki60*

    OMG I loved, loved loved this book. I literally read it straight through. I thoroughly enjoyed the section about Longbourne and the Collins family. He was much more sympathetic, but it made sense, it didn’t seem contrived at all. And you get to place all of your loathing squarely on Mrs. Bennett, who deserves it in spades

  45. Pam*

    I love Cerulean Sea! I haven’t read the Mary Bennett book, but I did read a short story last year, where she becomes involved with a certain Dr. Frankenstein.
    I am also adoring Angel of the Crows, a Sherlock Holmes-adjacent novel, written by Katherine Addison.

  46. Stabbity Tuesday*

    I really liked Rules of Civility, and checked out Towles’ other book, A Gentleman in Moscow, on my last library trip before everything shut down back in the spring. It’s a great book, but reading about a Russian aristocrat forced to spend the rest of his post-revolution life in one building during The March That Never Ended gave a particularly interesting perspective to the story. Highly recommend both books.

  47. Annie Hanson*

    Alison, I read both Perfect Little World and Nothing to See Here. SO fantastic! My Dark Vanessa was incredible as well in a perverse, incredulous sort of way.

    I’d also recommend reading Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. It’s much better than the limited series (though not knocking the show because it was well done) and in fact was so good I ended up reading all of her other novels (something like 9 in total?)!

    Honorable mention, I believe from the 2019 top book lists-Little Fires Everywhere. I raced through it ahead of the Hulu miniseries and need to read it again!

  48. BigSigh*

    I LOVE TJ Klune. This person should get ALL the awards. Seriously the best writer I’ve found in literal years.

  49. Gloucesterina*

    If anyone wants a pageturner that does suspense and complex explorations of Native/Indigenous identities stirred together with lots of heart and humor, I loved Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild. Fair warning that it is open about sexual violence (no descriptions thereof) as a threat that Native women encounter and is really intense in detailing the aftermath of having a family member go missing.

    And if you can believe it, it also made me laugh aloud more than once – I listened to it as an audiobook performance and was super impressed.

  50. Daune*

    The Sevem Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is one of my favorite reads this year. The author really builds the story around you. Very easy to get lost in. Loved it

  51. Marsyas Tour Guide*

    I read the Klune book when I obtained an ARC and loved it so much! I hope to find another book like it that had such a wonderful cast of characters and a lot of heart. Happy to hear mention of it!

  52. Not Mindy*

    I read many of these books, and many of those were because of your recommendation.
    Not only did I love The House in the Cerulean Sea (well, I loved the middle 95%), I would have loved the audiobook even if I didn’t like the story. The narrator was absolutely _perfect_ for this book. At first I didn’t think so, but that was before I really got into the meat of the book. From that point on I almost couldn’t get enough of it.
    And to respond to some earlier comments, I also loved The Starless Sea. I have to admit that I’m not exactly sure what the book was about because I was too caught up in the beauty of the writing.
    If these types of books appeal to you I’d recommend Reverie by Ryan la Sala.

  53. Rosario*

    I adored the two Franqui books. The perspective is one that felt completely fresh. and as an immigrant myself, there was something about Mother Land that really spoke to my experience (even though I’m neither American nor Indian, and have never lived in either country) in a way I’ve not found in a book before.

  54. Anony-Mouse*

    I’m currently reading Nothing to See Here, which I first heard about from your 2019 list, and loving it so far.
    Thanks for all the recs!!

  55. chips*

    Disappointing that you’re still working through Amazon! Hopefully 2020 will bring links to less-oligarchic sites.

  56. redwitsch*

    Honesty I love TJ Klune, all his book are to read in one go – which means sometimes I am going to sleep at 2 am. 8D

  57. Bookie*

    I love your list and can’t wait to read some of these (many I had already read.) Two thoughts:

    A Category (list on right of page) for “Book Recommendations” so I can find all your lists in one click.

    If possible, could the Amazon links be formatted to open a new page instead of taking my current page to Amazon? I like to go back and forth, opening links, looking at suggestions based on that link, and getting back to your list (which is four or five posts down now and will be even further buried in a couple days) was harder than it needs to be.

    Thanks for all the lists you make – love this one and the gift guide!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Hi! It’s actually a web design best practice not to set links to open in new tabs. You can do that manually on your end if you want (for example, in many browsers you can press Control or Command while opening the link to make it open in a new tap), but if links are set to do it site-wide, there’s no way for people who don’t like that to undo it. There are also some accessibility issues with it:

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